Signs you may have a strategic plan, but not a strategy

10421697_10154198026070368_1406977032_oDoes it seem nonsensical to talk about a strategic plan that doesn’t have a strategy? Perhaps so, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. The field of strategic planning often gets bogged down in process and forgets content. For example, there are books on strategic planning that don’t even discuss what strategy is.

So, let’s define it

Strategy describes how you are going to succeed. Given the environment you are in, and the resources you have at your disposal, what is your pathway to success? What choices are you making to achieve your mission, to make your vision a reality?

(Relatively) easy to say. Not so easy to get done.

You might have just a strategic plan, and not really a strategy, regardless of what documents you might have and what they might say.

It’s worth asking the question: Strategy or just strategic plan?

Do any of the following ring true?

Your strategy (or strategic goals, or strategic objectives, or whatever term you use to describe your articulation of your strategy) simply repeats phrases that could be used in your mission or vision. If you have a strategy that says you will “provide value for members” that probably doesn’t add anything to your understanding of how the organization is going to succeed.

The strategic plan doesn’t help when you’re making choices. Should you prioritize speed, or quality? Should you take a broad or a narrow approach to defining your target market? If you don’t refer to your strategy when you are wondering how to answer questions like this, it’s probably not really a strategy.

You change it every year. Unless you’re in a wildly fast-moving environment (think app development startups a couple of years ago; even app development now has calmed down, though), there’s almost never a need for this. For the vast majority of sectors, real change takes longer than that, and your strategy shouldn’t be flipping around that quickly. You need to actually stick with a strategy for a while to have any clue whether you should change it and, if so, in which direction.

The board keeps sending the staff on fishing expeditions and wild-goose chases. If the senior leadership isn’t aligned on what’s important, it’s likely that there isn’t clarity on what the strategy is – which is tantamount to not having a strategy at all.

And, maybe the most damning: Nobody knows what the strategy is without referring to a document.

You’re still making decisions…

It’s important to note that the absence of a strategy doesn’t mean choices don’t get made. Of course they do, every day. Staff decide what to do, how to spend their time, how to allocate resources, and so on, and they do so with the best of intentions. But they don’t have the overall guidance which helps them direct their efforts in the appropriate directions. Decisions get made more haphazardly. This doesn’t necessarily result in disaster. But it doesn’t create the value that a strategic plan should.

If you see signs that you have a strategic plan but not really a strategy, I’d love to talk about whether we can help you with that. Please get in touch. And I’ll be presenting on this topic at the Greenfield Services Engaging Association Summit, July 24-25 in Ottawa – would love to see you there.

Photo: C. MacKechnie, used with permission

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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